One of the perks of researching the Wade Family at the Cleveland History Center is the access to other collections at the WRHS that can put the Wade’s in a larger context of Cleveland’s history. And indeed there are many related collections other than the Jeptha Homer Wade Papers (MS 3292) in which the Wades are being represented. For example, Susan Fleming’s (Japtha Homer Wade I’s second wife 1814-1889) travel journal from the trip the Wades did to Europe in 1871 is housed in the Donald McBride Family Papers collection (MS 4585). And for those who want to know more about the construction of Wade Park and the Art Museum, The Wade Park Committee Records (MS 3483) collection will provide useful sources. You can also take a look at the Beech Brook Records (MS 4544) to learn about the family’s philanthropic activities.
Yet, sometimes, you find the Wades in odd places in the archives, in collections that you did not think has something to do with the family. Such a case is a photograph of Ellen (Nellie) Garretson Wade (1859-1917), the wife of Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857-1926), taken when she was about 19, shortly after her marriage. In this studio photograph, Nellie is depicted in a reclining posture, smiling at the viewer, in somewhat intimate scene that alludes to gardens and nature. This picture is available in the Jeptha Home Wade Family Photographs, Series II collection (PG597) that is housed at the WRHS and is available in its digital repository.
But this photograph also appears in another collection. While doing research on the Mather Family, and particularly on Flora Stone Mather (1852-1909), who was Nellie’s social peer, the same photo of Nellie was found tucked in the pages of the Mather Family Album, which is part of the Mather Family Photograph Collection (PG278). This fact, which is not the cause of an archivist’s confusion or miscataloging raises interesting questions about the relationship between the two families that shed more light on the social circle of the Wades in late-nineteenth-century Cleveland. The photo is placed next to a photograph of a young man with “Jeptha” scripted in pencil below. A much more formal photograph than that of Nellie’s, this could be a photograph of the young Jeptha Homer Wade II, from around the same time. Placing the two photographs together indicates that the couple was already married when the album was arranged.
The exchange of photographs among friends and acquaintances was a common custom among Gilded Age elites. One would have his or her portrait taken and placed on a calling card, or carte-de-visite as they were named, which was later circulated among friends. These cartes-de-visite were a small photograph of about 2.5 by 4 inches that was taken in a professional photography studio, produced in multiples on thin paper, and mounted onto card stock, which were sold for a relatively affordable price. Recipients of these cards arranged them as collections in albums, which they could then page through at their leisure or show off to friends. Indeed, one can think about those portraits card as the nineteenth century version of Facebook, and like Facebook, these photographs were not necessarily a documentary snapshot of reality, but a planned and careful act of self-fashioning and self-presentation.
While the majority of these portraits were a simple head shot, taken from the upper torso, by the late nineteen century, they became more elaborate, as people started to use them as a form of social performance, donning fashionable clothing, standing in front of ornate backdrops, and assuming poses that connoted the sort of attitude they wanted the world to see. As a visual image meant to be shared, these portraits became an efficient way to shape your own public image. Nellie’s photograph thus needs to be understood in this context. Instead of a somber, official portrait, Nellie chose to highlight her youthful and light spirited character, positioning herself as a fashionable young woman enjoying her leisure time in nature.
The fact that Nellie chose to share this specific photo with the Mather family and not another, more formal, portrait of her, suggests the type of relationship they had. Both Nellie and Flora were about the same age, both active in similar social and cultural circles. They were neighbors, both families owned houses on Euclid Ave., and both were educated and raised in Cleveland. While there is no indication in either of the families papers of closer connections between the Mather’s and the Wade’s, the intimate nature of Nellie’s photograph that is in the Mather’s album offers an interesting evidence of the affection that might existed between the two women, and the friendship they might shared.
These unexpected encounters at the archive allow us, the researchers, to ask new questions and to expand our perspectives on the Wade family. While some of these paths will lead us into dead ends, it is still a journey worth exploring and an invitation for further investigations into the lives of Cleveland elite in Gilded Age Cleveland.